When we first met Dahlia Malloy (Minnie Driver), she was sitting roadside, just released from prison. She looked wracked and acted all junkie-jittery as she waited for her family to pick her up so she could reclaim her life. Trouble was, her family had run into some of their own trouble with the law. A crew of Irish grifters, Wayne (Eddie Izzard) and the kids (Shannon Marie Woodward as Di Di, Noel Fisher as Cael, and Aidan Mitchell as Sam), were having a difficult time explaining their broken-down Winnebago stuffed to the gills with other people’s wedding presents.
Soon reunited, the Malloys met up with their extended clan of travelers in a backwoods celebration of Dahlia’s return. She’s the daughter of the patriarch, who was on his deathbed. After a power struggle between Wayne and Dahlia’s brother Dale (Todd Stashwick), the family hit the road again, with a bunch of lucre stolen from the clan. Chase ensued and in the process, a yuppie couple was killed in a crash. Backed into a corner by his own doings, Wayne convinced the family to hide out at the couple’s new house (the keys and title were in the car) until things cooled down. Once there, he cooked up a scheme to take over the couple’s lives; they’d bought the house online, no one in the community had actually ever seen them. And so the Malloys became the Riches.
This is the somewhat elaborate set-up for The Riches. While it sounds like other class-clash stories, the series does not reduce to obvious or obnoxious social buffoonery. The comedy is bittersweet, driven by the family’s various desires for the “good life” and anxieties about being “found out” or found insufficient or too fake. Such anxieties are, The Riches suggests, the underlying condition of striving for “the American dream.”
To that end, The Riches exposes dominant US ideological fantasies. In the second episode, “Operation Education” (26 March 2007), Dahlia insisted to Wayne, “They don’t just give you this American dream thing. You got to take it.” Along with the rest of her family, Dahlia embraces visions of self-reliance and boot-strap-pulling. Talented con artists, they quickly infiltrate elite institutions; Wayne takes Doug Rich’s new job as head of legal counsel at a real estate development firm, and the kids lie their ways into the most exclusive local academy.
The Riches thus exposes that education, hard work, and intellect aren’t the real qualifications for achievement. You only need to look the part and perform appropriate social roles. Doug bluffed his way through his first meeting with his new staff by calling the legal department the “rock” of the firm, blah, blah, blah. He mouthed platitudes, but did so with the right force and inflection. Most importantly, he’s got charisma, and within a few short minutes, his new job was secured.
The Riches’ class critique also makes clear the raced aspects of the dream. The Malloys repeatedly appear underprivileged and “other” in terms of class, but their lily-whiteness affords them an initial presumption that they “belong.” The few characters of color depicted in The Riches—in trailer parks, in subordinate, administrative or service positions—are decidedly removed from dream the Riches enter into with such ease.
The Riches is more direct in its critique of corporate culture. The distance between the Malloys’ hornswoggling cons and the “tough” business tactics of Wayne’s boss, Hugh Panetta (Gregg Henry), is miniscule. The only difference is one of scale. This lesson was driven home in the most recent episode, “X Marks the Spot” (30 April 2007). After filching money out of Hugh’s safe to fix some traveler troubles, Wayne had to do some swift footwork to stay out of suspicion and in Hugh’s good graces. He quickly concocted a story about his secret romancing of a high-profile client for the firm, and promised to deliver a big $500K investment.
Wayne and the family, despite their nerves about never having gone for a score this large, developed and carried out a grand scam that produced the $500K for Hugh. They were all amazed when they pulled off the con, but as Dahlia remarked earlier in the episode, “People make this kind of money every day.” And, the show asserts, in the same illicit manner. Greed and amorality are the real currency of “the American dream,” as The Riches demonstrates by equating small-time grifting with large-scale corporate corruption.